Wednesday, October 15, 2008


This somehow seems to encapsulate everything wrong not just with educational technology, but also with the university today.

Let's take a closer look. Starting with the following map:

What is this? It's a map of the UK, from Google maps, with an apparently random number of cities and town marked (Bolton and Slough, but not Manchester and Newcastle). On the left hand side, under the legend "uk city pop test," the city and town names are provided in alphabetical order, with "population" and a figure. Beside each name is a checked box.

What earthly use is this map? None, as far as I can see. The population information is correlated with geography, but not in such a way that it might be useful. A series of population figures have been recontextualized, to give the appearance of added value, but in fact provide no clear benefit to man, bird, or beast. What is the principle of selection of these particular towns and cities? How does the geographical correlation add to our understanding of UK demographics? What in fact does this map and its accompanying table tell us about geography, population, or the UK? Nothing.

And yet, this map is presented to us as "kewel" (whatever exactly that means), and a host of apparently otherwise rational people are celebrating the fact that this is supposedly "good shit," "awesome," "amazingly cool," "a fine thing indeed," "awesomely nifty," and so on ad nauseam. One commenter even reported "I think my head just exploded". He (or she) is not the only one.

So why the plaudits? Well, it has to do with the process by which the map was produced which, in short, involved taking some data from a Wikipedia article and subjecting it to various repackaging and transformations, using technical devices such as RSS feeds. The presentation of this process is interspersed with comments such as "lurvely" before the final "kewel" conclusion. My friend Brian Lamb then tells us that this is an instance of "data literacy".

But not only is the final product bafflingly useless. And not only has, along the way, much of the data (on cities such as Manchester and Newcastle) apparently been lost. It is also clear by looking at the original Wikipedia article--and only by looking at the original Wikipedia article--that the data requires commentary and explanation for it to be effectively understood.

For you might be surprised to learn, if you actually read the data on the map above rather than staring agog while your head exploded, that London is apparently eight times larger than any other city in the UK. The UK, in this rendering, comes to appear more like a country such as Chile, in which Santiago is practically the only city of any note, than the collection of regions with which anyone who has actually visited the place is familiar. How has this strange distortion come about?

Well, by reading the Wikipedia article, in which virtually each and every figure comes with some kind of note, and in which the entire list has a seven-paragraph explanatory introduction, it soon becomes clear how the very definition of a city and city population is a tricky construct. The Wikipedia text explains the difference between city councils, local authorities, conurbations, and so on. It notes, for instance, the difference between the population of Manchester (at 394,269, well below that of Bristol's 420,556) and Greater Manchester (at 2,244,931 well above that of Greater Bristol's 551,066). The Wikipedia article also has footnotes and references, as well as a thriving discussion page, all of which are essentially for any "data literacy" worthy of the name. That is, a data literacy that does not dispense with literacy per se, replacing explanatory text with "kewel" ejaculations and exploding heads.

Yet the very first step in the process led to the map above was to strip the figures of their accompanying text.

It seems that neither Tony Hirst, the person who set this operation into motion, nor any of those who are blithely praising his work, bothered to think about the data itself or what it meant. That, indeed, as Hirst himself has repeatedly stated in response to my comments, "wasn't the point." But if someone can advocate, and others can gasp at, such mangling of data without even thinking about what happens to that data in the process, believing it to be somehow beside the point... well, that's a textbook case of data illiteracy as far as I'm concerned.

The final product is a swish little graphic that turns out to be totally meaningless, much like the visual data points for which USA Today has become notorious. Moreover, this re-presentation of the data in fact distorts of UK geography: in so far as it does in fact hold minimal meaning, it elides all the subtleties of the original source so as to end up as a vapid misrepresentation.

I'm reminded of nothing so much as the various swish repackagings and representations of debt, by which dodgy high-interest loans made out to poor people in heartland USA became class AA securities traded in decontextualized form by people who thought of themselves as the smartest people in the room. In the world of high finance and complex derivatives, too, what mattered only was the "kewel" ways in which figures could be abstracted from people and contexts, mashed up and resold in dashing and "awesomely nifty" ways.

The chickens have come home to roost for this fundamental corruption in the banking and finance sectors. Of course, a little educational technology mashup "goodness" can't be as important or as harmful, right? It's only knowledge and education that's at stake here as the university parodies the neoliberal landscape that it sets out to imitate, rather than critique. This is the university of excellence once more, but now in the sense of Bill and Ted's "excellent" adventure: a couple of goofy guys saying "kewel" as the lights go out on the institution's real mission.

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